A Saucy Proposition

Franco Gattuso, photo by Vincenzo D'Alto

Are Italians warming up to store-bought sauces?

Italian food is practically synonymous with homemade. From cheese to wine to sausage, we love things we make with our own hands and recall our regional traditions. Of all our homemade traditions, tomato sauce is still king.

Many of us are familiar with this scenario: you get a call from family one late summer weekend that the tomatoes are ready. Then you quickly spring into action peeling, boiling, straining and jarring. As with any custom, it needs to be maintained. Many families have stopped the labour-intensive practice of making their own sauces for lack of time or because the older generations are unable to continue. Many more still persist and insist that when it comes to sauce, casalinga is the only way to go. Others have found an acceptable hybrid in canned tomatoes or passata that they season themselves for a homemade taste without the back-breaking work. But what about the rarely discussed other option – ready-to-eat, store-bought sauce?

To say the question elicits strong reactions from Italian-Canadians is an understatement. “Let’s be honest – there’s a bit of ego there,” says Tino Magistrale, owner of Boucherie Chez Vito in Mile-End. “None of us want to believe that what we make at home can be replicated. I genuinely believe that every time my mom makes her sauce there is some magic passed down through the generations that makes its way in there.” 

Tony Lallitto, co-owner of Veratrima, imports ready-made food products from Italy that include a range of high-end sauces that will be available in grocery stores throughout Quebec this fall. He says the market for his products exists mainly in the non-Italian community. “It’s hard to sell ready-made sauce to Italians,” he notes. “It’s especially hard to convert the older generation. It’s not easy to change their mentality.”

Part of the challenge is selling high-end products to Italians in general. “I’ve found that French-Canadians are willing to pay more for a premium product, but many Italians still have a bargain-hunting mentality,” says Lallitto. “And many still make their own sauce.”

Despite the difficulty in selling to older Italian-Canadians, he believes the younger generations are slowly coming around, thanks in part to their hectic lifestyle and the improved quality of ready-made food. “People are busy and it’s easy,” says Lallitto. “They have less time to invest in the kitchen making homemade food. We work for them.”

Magistrale agrees: “They want Sunday-quality sauce all week long. In some cases, the tradition of la mangiata on Sunday is not continuing. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want meals that taste and feel like home.”

In 2009, restaurateur Franco Gattuso left the business to produce and sell ready-made tomato sauce full-time. He opened his popular Mile-End Drogheria Fine in 2010 and nearly a decade later, the sauce has garnered somewhat of a cult following.

Una questione che stuzzica

Gattuso fills approximately 250 Mason jars per day in his tight 300 square foot Fairmount Street operation. He’s also been getting some buzz of late for his take-out gnocchi window that operates when weather permits. Patrons come from far and wide to gulp down a generous scoop of gnocchi pomodoro and romano cheese; and he also benefits from the spill-over at neighbouring Fairmount bagel. His flagship Salsa Della Nonna – a straight, ready-to-eat tomato sauce – is also available in over 20 fine grocery stores around the city.

He sees many Italian-Canadians at his shop but it’s usually the younger ones. “Many younger Italians may still have parents or grandparents who make sauce for them but who haven’t picked up the skill themselves, or frankly, just believe that their mom’s sauce is the best,” he says. “They’re busy, and a quality, ready-made sauce is a convenient alternative that still feels and tastes authentic.”

Gattuso, who runs Drogheria with the help of his immediate family, including his beloved mom Caterina, says the secret to his simple concoction with minimal ingredients is in the process. “The precise volume of heat – the flame – and then the cooling process we use. I make the sauce become like jam,” he says. “We prepare it the traditional Calabrese way. We also package it in Mason jars like most Italians do at home,” he adds.

The common, often correct, perception about locally produced and sold foods for consumers, is that government standards and controls impede the production of authentic-tasting products. Not so for Gattuso. “The food inspectors actually permitted me to work in certain way that allowed the sauce to turn out the way it does,” he admits. “And the Mason jar is the perfect container to pasteurize and to keep it on the shelf with nothing added.”

Tino Magistrale echoes the belief that today’s products are produced with updated and complementary procedures. “I think the key change in ready-made sauces is that they’re being made by Italians with the same level of care and attention that they would give to the sauce they serve their family. We import sauces from Italy that would blow you away!” So will the latest breed of ready-made sauces win over more Italian-Canadians? Maybe, if the ingredients are authentic enough. But like a good sugo, the question might need more time to slowly simmer.